By LISA MONTI
When Karen Kurr started selling her homemade casseroles at nearby farmers markets a decade ago, she couldn’t have imagined what she was in for. “It’s been a whirlwind,” she said.
Her Oxford-based company, No Time 2 Cook, marked its tenth anniversary in March but Kurr has been too busy to celebrate, mainly filling orders for such frozen meals as chicken pie, chicken and dumplings, and crab penne to hundreds of Kroger stores in seven states and other customers.
“I was not expecting this when I drug my coolers filled with dishes to those first little farmers markets,” she said.
Kurr’s slow and steady growth, from cooking home-style casseroles in her kitchen to owning and operating an industrial plant for her products, is a blend of good timing, luck and hard work, all the ingredients that make for a successfully expanding operation.
Kurr also got help from her partner, Charles Hyneman, a veteran of the food industry, and took advantage of the services offered by the Entrepreneur Center, part of the Mississippi Development Authority whose mission is to help businesses get started and grow successfully.
Most new businesses don’t make it to the five-year point, said John Brandon, who heads the center. “We need to change those odds. It’s why we were created.”
For businesses looking to expand, the question of when to do it sounds complicated, Brandon said, but it really is easy “because the market drives everything. The good time to expand is when your customers are letting you know you should. When customers say ‘I wish you were closer to me,’ maybe it’s time to look for a second location. Your customers will let you know you’re missing out.”
Brandon said the Entrepreneur Center works with all sorts of business owners. “The great thing in Mississippi is that we have so many creative people, there really is huge potential for new businesses. We have good cooks who know the food industry and others who know the textile industry, the music and arts industries. We try to work with those folks to make their businesses profitable and not just a hobby.”
Kurr’s venture was just a step above the hobby phase.
A former home ec major and college instructor, Kurr was a stay-at-home mom when she began thinking about her next career move. When she saw that her prepared food was an immediate hit at local farmer’s markets, things started taking off. “This just landed in my lap and it’s what I ended up doing,” she said.
She went from farmers markets to antique malls where she stocked freezers full of her products. Then it was on to mom-and-pop stores that sold the food from their own freezers.
At the five-year mark, Kurr decided to build a USDA-approved small casserole plant in Oxford – the only one in the state – so No Time 2 Cook could continue to expand beyond her home operation. “That’s when it really got serious and I had to go out and find some real money,” she said.
That’s when the Entrepreneur Center came in. “Funding came from a minority business loan through MDA and the center worked with us on marketing and business plans, all things you need to know and do,” she said. “I had not done any of it and didn’t plan on doing it in the first place. I was just going to haul the food to farmers markets.”
In the beginning Kurr made 25 or 30 chicken pies a day. Today the company is turning out 900 to 950 of the products a day and the plant is poised to double that output. Other products include tamale pies, chicken and dumplings and various frozen desserts.
No Time 2 Cook recently experienced a huge surge in the number of stores selling its products. “We just jumped in the last month from being in about 100 Kroger stores in the Delta Division to over 300 in Houston and Dallas,” she said.
Kurt admits there have been mistakes along the way but, she said, “Every time we’ve learned from it and we fixed it and we are very fortunate that we have weathered our learning curve.”
For information about MDA and the Entrepreneur Center, go to msenetworks.org and www.mississippi.org
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